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Amazon’s New Screen Tech Patents Reveal Clues of Future Kindle Plans

liquavista 1Famously secretive, Amazon hasn’t said much about Liquavista since acquiring the screen tech company last spring, but a recent check of their patent filings has revealed that the retail giant isn’t letting Liquavista gather dust on the shelf.

A reader has tipped me to five new patents for electrowetting screen tech which Amazon filed last week, including at least one which suggests that Amazon wants to integrate a Liquavista  screen into a future Kindle. (Thanks, Javi!)

The patents cover both making a screen and integrating it into a device. They get quite detailed, far more so than I can cover in this post, but one in particular caught my eye. That patent mentions a new hybrid electrowetting screen tech which has separate greyscale and color components. This, folks, is new to me:

By providing a greyscale picture element layer and a separate colour picture element layer, the electrowetting display device can provide high quality and high brightness greyscale images and high quality colour images independently of each other. In an example, having a dedicated picture element layer for colour and another dedicated picture element layer for greyscales allows each layer to be optimised for desired properties for colour and greyscale images, rather than in known systems where the colour properties of a colour filter may be compromised so the colour filter may contribute to both colour and greyscale display states.

amazon liquavista electrowetting 1The description goes on to add that this new design is easier to manufacture than Liquavista’s existing designs, but I would say that is less important than the fact that it suggests the possibility of a single screen offering both a color option and high resolution grayscale option.

Update: As a reader points out in the comments, Liquavista showed off a 9.7″ XGA screen in 2011. That’s 1024 x 768, or about 132 ppi. If the RGB pixels are replaced by gray/gray/gray pixels, this would effectively triple the resolution of the screen. Thanks, Felix!

So far as I know Liquavista has not shown off an electrowetting screen which had both color and grayscale ability, so this truly is something new.

For those just tuning in, Liquavista is a Netherlands-based screen tech company which Amazon bought from Samsung in 2013. For the past decade Liquavista has been working on a screen tech based on the principles of electrowetting (Wikipedia). Liquavista’s tech is supposed to provide a low -power alternative to traditional LCD screens, but so far it has not released a single commercial product (in spite of several missed release dates in 2010, 2011, 2012).

Originally a project in the research labs at Phillips, Liquavista was spun off into its own company and later acquired by Samsung in early 2011.

Samsung wanted Liquavista for its screen tech, but sold the company to Amazon once it was clear that one, Liquavista couldn’t produce a screen which looked as good as LCD or OLED, and two, the battery problem faced by mobile devices had largely been solved (here’s a more detailed explanation).

Amazon has never explicitly stated why they wanted Liquavista, but it has generally been assumed that Amazon was going to use the screen tech either in a consumer product or for some unknown internal purpose related to Amazon’s warehouses (this was why they bought Kiva Systems).

I would say that it is safe to conclude that Amazon wants to use the Liquavista tech in a future Kindle. This conclusion is reinforced both by the hiring spree earlier this year and by the money that Amazon is clearly pouring into Liquavista.

Starting in December 2013, Liquavista has filed for at least 16 patents, including patents that cover the material, manufacture techniques, design, and function of electrowetting displays. That stands in stark contrast to the previous two years when Liquavista filed for a grand total of 5 patents.

Amazon is clearly throwing money at Liquavista, and I can’t wait to see what ends up on store shelves. With luck, we might see the new Kindle by the fall of 2015.

Update: Unless, of course, the rumored Kindle Paperwhite Ice Wine (the one which was supposed to launch this spring) has a Liquavista screen. A reader just pointed out the possible connection. Thanks, Guilliame!

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Javi August 5, 2014 um 11:20 am

You’re welcome! 😉

Guillaume August 5, 2014 um 4:22 pm

Fall 2015 ?

I need a new kindle sooner, to give my son my first edition PaperWhite…

Are we really sure some kind of Icewine (non-liquidvista screen) is not coming this year ?

Nate Hoffelder August 5, 2014 um 5:05 pm

Damn. You just made a connection that slipped right by me.

You’re right that we still haven’t seen the KPW Ice Wine; that could indeed have a Liquavista screen. The rumor said didn’t actually say it had an E-ink screen, and there’s a chance that someone confused a grayscale Liquavista screen with E-ink or that everyone just assumed that the screen was E-ink.

Guillaume August 6, 2014 um 9:38 am

I’m not sure I’m making real connections, I’m just desperate for a reason to change my e-reader 🙂

The latest rumor I have seen is here :
"plus a remarkably thin upcoming version of the Kindle Paperwhite, code-named Ice Wine."
You linked this article in a Morning Coffee post, but did not comment on it (and especially about this thin kindle)

Nate Hoffelder August 6, 2014 um 9:45 am

The connection may prove to be nothing but it was still a good question to raise. Kudos for that.

And I remember that BW article. I didn’t know what to make of the Ice Wine reference at the time. The TechCrunch rumor had been proven false, and I thought that BW reference was bunk. But now I’m not so sure.

Nate Hoffelder August 7, 2014 um 3:33 pm

Actually, as I go back and reread your comment I see that I misinterpreted it.

You’re asking if we will see any new Kindle this year at all. I think so. From what i have heard it will have a more rugged screen, but no increase in resolution.

fjtorres August 5, 2014 um 7:08 pm

Liquavista was showing 9.7in XGA panels back in 2011 so the tech does reach 400dpi in grayscale mode.
Whether yields are good enough for production is the big question.
But if they are using it for 2014 it should be at the FCC right now so it’s time to look for oddball submissions…

Nate Hoffelder August 6, 2014 um 9:46 am

Indeed. XGA resolution s 1024 x 768, so if Liquavista can replace each color pixel with a grayscale pixel (or stack on on top of the other) then they could effectively triple the resolution.

Michael W. Perry August 6, 2014 um 12:33 pm

Is Samsung right that this new technology will never come to market or is Amazon zeal for that color/greyscale blend (great for ebooks) justified?

Only time will tell. If it were up to me, I’d put my bets on Samsung. Whatever people may think about them (versus Apple), they do know technology.

Nate Hoffelder August 6, 2014 um 12:41 pm

If not for the Fire Phone I would put my money on Amazon.

Now I am not sure that Amazon is still making good product decisions, so I really can’t say.

Ben August 27, 2014 um 12:15 pm

They’ve never made good product decisions apart from in their B&W eReaders. The Fire has been a flop. Yes, people bought them when they were discounted to be sold at a loss, and some people use them as overly-heavy, overly-bright eReaders. But most leave them in their drawer.

The Fire Phone looks ok but it seems the wrong way to go. I think if they had done a cheap and cheerful model it would have worked better. I still think they should buy/have bought HTC. That would have given them a trusted, quality brand to help.

Nate Hoffelder August 27, 2014 um 12:38 pm

I’d have to disagree. I know people who like the original KF, and i swear by my KFHD; it’s a great media and light gaming tablet. But it’s biggest deficiency is that it is really only a good fit for existing Amazon customers.

Amazon’s bigger issue with tablet hardware is that the US tablet market is glutted in 2014. And there was no way to predict that happening last year.

But I do agree that the Fire Phone has fizzled.

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